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The all-American rise of Katrina Pierson, Donald Trump’s unlikely spokeswoman
Trump’s national spokeswoman had an unlikely rise to the top.
Picture the average Donald Trump supporter in your head. Whomever you pictured probably looks nothing like Katrina Pierson.
A single mother, Pierson voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and served on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz‘s Senate campaign in 2012. But it’s Pierson who supplies the average Trump supporter with their dinner table talking points.
Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, tapped the 39-year-old Pierson to be his national spokeswoman in November. According to Politico, Pierson had impressed Trump, whom she met on the campaign trail while working for Cruz.
Pierson’s ascent into the spotlight of U.S. politics is as much the quintessential all-American story of a self-made life as it is unlikely.
As spokeswoman, Pierson serves as the Trump campaign’s most visible form of damage control. Over the course of nearly nine months, Pierson has served as Trump’s main line of defense on the broadcast news circuit, maintains an active social media presence, and scores regular appearances before CNN’s Don Lemon and Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.
To most PR people, defending Trump might seem like a tall order. But Pierson seemed to be well aware of that when she signed on to the job. The native of Garland, Texas, exhibits an admiration for Trump and his message that sometimes seems limitless. Even when her boss offends women, Muslims, or people of color, Pierson stands by his side.
“Perhaps Mr. Trump could have gone out and blamed Brexit on a video that never existed and maybe the media would have been okay with that.”
“The truth is, no one truly interesting is universally liked. So, most of the spin is to correct the biased reporting when he is pulled out of context,” Pierson said in a December interview with the Dallas Morning News. “The things he says are only controversial because we have evolved into a cupcake society. Everyone is offended by everything thanks to years of political correctness.”
Pierson’s disregard for political correctness is clear. You may be familiar with Pierson as the Trump official who retorted “So what, they’re Muslim!” in the middle of a debate with S.E. Cupp on Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Or from when Pierson tweeted, “Are there any purebreeds left?” during the 2012 election, referring to the fathers of then President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney being born overseas. Pierson also referred to President Obama on Twitter as the “head Negro in charge.” Like Obama, Pierson is half black.
When #TrumpGirlsBreaktheInternet began trending on Twitter, Pierson gamely jumped on the bandwagon.
Pierson, much like her boss, is candid and outspoken on both social media and cable news. When Pierson defends one of Trumps’ controversial positions on immigration, women, or national security, it will often add more fuel to the fire. If one of Trump’s statements lack any basis in fact, Pierson will often insist that it does. After Politifact found Trump’s claims on the vetting process to admit Syrian refugees into the United States false, Pierson retorted, “We’re not going to base national security off PolitiFact or even the United Nations.”
If one of Trump’s statements just seems ill-timed or insensitive, Pierson will often outright deflect. Trump was criticized for pointing out that one of the merits of Brexit was that it would bring more people to his golf course in Scotland; when asked to explain the faux pas, Pierson changed the subject to the Benghazi scandal, incorrectly stating that a YouTube video that sparked protests in the Middle East never existed.
“Perhaps Mr. Trump could have gone out and blamed Brexit on a video that never existed and maybe the media would have been okay with that,” Pierson said.
Such an approach has picked up plenty of criticism, even from Republicans.
“[Pierson] is a vital and integral part of Donald Trump’s plan to lose the election and hand the White House over to Hillary Clinton,” said Republican consultant Mike Murphy in an email to the Daily Dot. “She is a message train wreck.”
Others, meanwhile, have a more positive assessment of Pierson’s ability to control the message of a candidate as unpredictable as Trump—even if Pierson still seems like an odd choice for a major campaign spokeswoman.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said in an interview with the Daily Dot that Trump’s hiring of Pierson was “deeply surprising” to him given her lack of experience. Jillson admitted his first thoughts upon hearing that Trump had picked Pearson was, “What the hell was he thinking? How did he even find out about her?”
Despite her relative newness to the world of national politics and presidential elections, Pierson has risen to the challenge, Jillson said.
“On the whole, she has not had the difficulty in being a spokeswoman that I would have expected her to have,” Jillson said. “There was no reason to believe when she was selected out of Dallas that she knew anything about national security, military affairs, even national domestic politics.”
Prior to being hired by Trump, Pierson was a local Tea Party activist in Dallas who made a long-shot bid in 2014 to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Pete Sessions. Even though she won the endorsement of former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and conservative immigration group Americans for Legal Immigration, Sessions easily bested Pierson. Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious hardliner on immigration who famously accused Obama of forging his own birth certificate, abruptly pulled his endorsement of Pierson during the campaign.
According to the Dallas Morning News, Arpaio accused Pierson of misleading him on her challenger Sessions’ track record on immigration. Given that Session’s congressional voting record is public, it’s hard to take such an accusation seriously. It’s more likely that Pierson’s campaign, as reflected by its scant fundraising, was hard to take seriously.
“She was not seen as a rising figure,” said Jillson of Pierson’s status in Texas politics.
“On the whole, she has not had the difficulty in being a spokeswoman that I would have expected her to have.”
Fast forward to two years later, and Pierson is now the spokeswomen for the likely Republican nominee for president.
Pierson technically isn’t a staffer; the campaign instead bills her for consulting services. Pierson’s consulting firm racked in more than $11, 200 from the Trump campaign during November and December 2015, according to year-end FEC filings.
Unlike Trump’s decidedly low-profile press secretary, Hope Hicks, or ousted campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, any press attention that Pierson gets is intentional. It’s Pierson who, for example, explains on MSNBC what Trump meant by saying a Hispanic judge was incapable of being fair, or who defends claims of misogyny against Trump on The Kelly File. It’s Pierson who argues before CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Trump hasn’t flip-flopped on his position on guns in the face of criticisms that he has.
In one of her most talked-about moments, back in December 2015, Pierson wore a necklace made of bullets to a CNN interview that did not focus on guns. This prompted host Jim Sciutto and gun safety advocates to tweet at Pierson after the segment to ask her motives behind the jewelry.
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America tweeted, “surely @KatrinaPierson wore the bullet necklace on #CNN to bring attention to 90 Americans fatally shot daily #gunsense.”
In response, Pierson tweeted this:
Pierson’s ascent from an impoverished childhood in Kansas to a Texas Tea Party darling is nothing if not unlikely. According to the Huffington Post, Pierson was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1976 to a white mother and black father. Pierson’s childhood was not a happy one, and Pierson’s mother was left to raise her on her own. At a 2013 March for Jobs in Washington, D.C., Pierson detailed a childhood spent in poverty.
“Coming from an abusive home, raised in poverty, I even had written myself off as just a simple statistic,” said Pierson. She went on to say that, through her free will, she made choices that took her on a different path—making her the embodiment of the conservative ideal of self-determination.
“I dreamed of having my own house with a swimming pool and backyard, and eventually, becoming my own boss. But where I came from, that wasn’t just a dream, that was a fantasy,” Pierson said.
Pierson is staunchly against government benefits such as welfare and unemployment. She criticizes those who rely on it, including her own mother, as accepting “handouts” from the government. Shortly after Pierson was hired by Trump, the Texas politics blog Quorum Report revealed that she collected unemployment benefits from the state of Texas while working for the Cruz campaign in 2012 and 2013. Instead of apologizing, Pierson defended her use of government benefits as a single mother.
“I’m not sure what the scandal is here,” Pierson told the Dallas Morning News.
Despite being a teenage single mom herself, Pierson went on to graduate in 2006 from the University of Texas in Dallas with a degree in biology. Pierson voted for Obama in 2008, the same year she went on to a career in healthcare administration. By the time President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010, Pierson was serving as a practice administrator for Baylor University’s health care system.
Pierson’s hatred of Obamacare, as well as the administration’s stance on immigration, is likely to have drawn her to the Tea Party, to Ted Cruz, and finally to Donald Trump. She told the Dallas Morning News that she picked Trump because was tougher on immigration than Cruz.
“She did have a rocky and difficult early life.”
Cruz had a noticeably softer stance than Trump on undocumented workers. In December 2015, he refused to provide them work permits. Trump, on the other hand, hoped to deport them all. Perhaps in response to this, Cruz toughened up on immigration midway through primary season.
“… I’ve watched too many Americans in the tech industry lose jobs along with healthcare workers be passed over jobs due to HB1 visas simply because of the lower wages,” said Pierson. “Americans should come first.”
To some observers, however, Pierson’s loyalty to Trump doesn’t seem to simply be a matter of politics. Pierson had little to lose before being hired by the Trump campaign. Her popularity rose with the popularity of the Tea Party, but the party is now losing momentum. She was a regular on Fox News Business but remained a virtual unknown outside of Texas politics. While Cruz called her “fearless,” Politico reported that Pierson was far from being inside his inner circle. Those who worked with her on the Cruz campaign gave a generally negative assessment to Politico, painting her as opportunistic.
Despite such dismal prospects, Pierson still remains ambitious. She still strives.
“She did have a rocky and difficult early life,” said Jillson. “She maintained a level of self-confidence in a sense that something good was going to happen.”
While Pierson’s ideologies shift and may contradict with her upbringing, the fervor behind them is unflinching. Pierson, Jillson said, “was available to any rising tide. And the rising tide she managed to capture was the Trump campaign.”
Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.